The Physics of Superheroes Book Summary

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

''The Physics of Superheroes'' by James Kakalios, separates the science from science fiction in classic and modern comic books. We will explore three branches of physics through examples from Marvel and DC comic book characters.

What is the Science in Science Fiction?

In The Physics of Superheroes author James Kakalios (professor of physics at the University of Minnesota) writes: ''Interestingly enough, whenever I cite examples from superhero comic books in a lecture, my students never wonder when they will use this information in their 'real life'.'' Kakalios' book isn't just about making physics accessible, his imaginative approach to teaching science makes it fun by using practical and extraordinary examples pulled from the pages of Marvel and DC comics.

His book is arranged into four sections:

  • Newtonian Mechanics (motion and gravity)
  • Thermodynamics (flow of heat and conservation of energy)
  • Modern physics (atomic physics and quantum mechanics)
  • What comic books get wrong (bloopers)

Within each chapter, different concepts in physics are explained using particular superheroes as an example. Featured superheroes include Superman, Spiderman, the Flash, Ant-Man, and the X-Men. It's the science of science fiction!

Classic Marvel comics

Newtonian Mechanics and Superman

Section 1 addresses Newtonian mechanics. Newton's laws of motion explain how force and gravity work and provide the foundation for classical physics. Classical physics is the branch of physics that concentrates on the science behind mass, motion, and force. Kakalios uses classical physics to examine the plausibility of many superhero abilities. Is it possible for Superman to fly? Is it possible for Spiderman to swing from a thread?

Superman: The Man of Steel

Gravity is the physical phenomenon that keeps us weighted down to Earth. Lots of superheroes have the powers to escape gravity in one way or another - by levitation, flight, or really good long jumping. In the case of Superman, a humanoid alien from Krypton, defying gravity requires only a jump. The gravity on Krypton was 15 times greater than that of Earth, so Superman's probably feeling as light as a feather. According to the classic comics, Superman can't fly but rather jump with excellent force. Newton's first two laws deal with force; Force = mass * acceleration. Kakalios estimates that if Superman (weighing 220 lb and having a mass of 100 kg) wanted to jump over a building at a height of 660 feet, he would need to jump at a velocity of 200 feet per second. With this calculation, Kakalios wonders if it's even plausible for Superman's legs to provide the necessary force of 5600 lb. If he's anatomically human, no. But if he has the superior anatomy of an alien? It's possible!

Thermodynamics and the X-Men

Section 2 explores thermodynamics, a branch of physics that addresses ''the flow of heat.'' In the study of thermodynamics, a core principle is the conservation of energy which states: ''Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but can only be transformed into one form or another.'' Kakalios investigates comics using the laws of thermodynamics. Can Iceman actually generate ice? How is Storm able to control the weather?

Kakalios clarifies that Iceman's mutant power relates to lowering the air temperature around his body. As Iceman gathers cold air around himself, he creates ice from the water vapor present in the atmosphere. Iceman cools the air around him but according to the laws of thermodynamics, that process would also generate a lot of heat. The comics never explain what happens to the 'waste heat.' Kakalios makes the comparison that, for the refrigerator in your kitchen to keep your food cold, the appliance will give off heat from the back of the unit. In order to make cold, the laws of thermodynamics state that we also need to release heat. Remember the law of conservation of energy? The heat energy has to go somewhere!

Quantum Physics and the Flash

Section 3, on modern physics, includes chapters that address atomic physics and quantum mechanics. This section asks questions about the probability of the existence of alternate worlds and the possibility of time travel. Is it possible for divergent universes to exist? Can Superman fly back in time?

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